One of the most moving moments in the epic movie "Saving Private Ryan" was when Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), as he lay dying, grabbed Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), pulled him close and gasped with his last breath, "Earn this!" What did he mean? What could a real-life Ryan do to earn the giving of another's life for him or her?
Reading "between the lines," we can assume that the intent was to challenge Ryan to live a life of honor, productivity, sacrifice, duty and accomplishment to make that cost worthwhile at least in some small part.
Memorial Day was declared a national holiday in 1971, but has roots going back at least to May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, N.Y., (originally called Decoration Day) in a "ceremony … (that) honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff." Other cities, some in the South, claimed "birth" status for similar activities – the point is that we have not always honored those fallen in military service as we do now.
Or do we? Even more poignant, why should we? Fundamentally, because while we may not support or even oppose a war or military action decided by our civil and military leaders, we recognize two vital principles rendering those who have given the "last full measure" worthy of such honor.
First is the value of every human life in peace or in war. That concept is not universal historically nor is it so even in our world today. The use of "human shields" by Islamists and waves of human sacrifices such as the Chinese during the Korean War are two such examples.
To the contrary, the notion depicted in the movie that one life was worth saving because he was the sole surviving man in his family is uniquely Judeo-Christian and American. Miners caught in a collapse, a child fallen into a well, an accident victim life-flighted and given expensive critical care – all examples that each life has worth in this country.
One day the unborn will be restored to that status.
The inalienable right to life given by our Creator to every individual is not a byproduct of the Enlightenment, Greek philosophy, or myriad other modes of thought. As Dr. Gary Amos, author and former professor of law and government at Regent University states in "Defending the Declaration":
The Bible and Christianity, because of their unique view of the importance and value of each person, gave birth to the concept of inalienable rights centuries before it found its way into the Declaration.
Nathan Hale was reported by a British officer present at his hanging to have declared, "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." That truth and the sacrifice it represents cause us to respect those who willingly give it. They could give no more.
The second principle is that there must be something of value received given equal to the price paid for this most costly of sacrifices. What indeed is worth dying for? Since we have only one life and then face eternity, what could justify the giving of or taking of a life?
That question has provoked centuries of debate even within the Christian Church and is central to Augustine's development of the Just War Theory/Doctrine to provide a biblical standard of when governing authority may properly engage in the act of war. While pacifism, post-modern relativism, dispensationalist theology that removes Old Testament principles from relevancy in Christianity, evangelical liberalism and other factors have challenged the legitimacy of any war – the fact remains that it will always be with us.
War is the result of evil actions produced by the inherent sin that, apart from redemption through Jesus Christ, constantly gives us "… immorality , impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. …" (Galatians 5:19-21, NASB)
If an intruder breaks into your home in the dark of night, you are fully justified by Scripture and by civil law to take that intruder's life in defense of your family. Beyond your home, the "sword" of civil punishment and use of deadly force is given to governing authority (Romans 13). That premise is the basis for law enforcement and military action.
The foundational truth for this was given by Jesus Christ in John 15:12,13: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (NIV). We are not to take life or lay ours down out of hatred or anger, but of love.
Sounds crazy, but please think it through. In the famous story of Sgt. Alvin York (a must- read book and must-see movie!), a Christian pacifist is moved to kill German soldiers in what he realized was an act necessary to save the lives of not only his fellow soldiers but his family. He literally had to love enough to kill.
Have we "earned this," as Capt. Miller challenged Pvt. Ryan? Are we living lives of selflessness, honor, godliness, virtue, courage, sacrifice, etc.?
Is the America of today worth the lives of those who have fallen since April 19, 1775, to give us the privilege, right and duty to govern ourselves? When most pastors won't even jeopardize their comfort, position, favor, security and certainly their nonprofit status to proclaim God's word on crucial issues of the day, the answer leaves great room for doubt.
If we are willing to let our sons, husbands, fathers and now even our daughters, wives and mothers (another discussion for another day) lay down their lives for us, do they not deserve our willingness to lay down our lives, fortunes, sacred honor and pulpits for them in being godly citizens?
Yes. Please start by taking time on Memorial Day to attend a commemoration at your closest National Cemetery, or at least take time to talk and pray with your family about what it means.